For far too many years, I did not know the difference between the various kinds of sleeves, to my sorrow. Because different kinds of sleeves will look very, very different on a human body. I had this vague dissatisfaction about some of my sweaters and shirts; I knew they didn't fit the way I wanted them to but I didn't know why. On the other hand, I had sweaters and shirts that I loved and wanted to wear all the time. Intuitively, I knew they fit me better and were more flattering, but again, I just couldn't put my finger on why.
After I began knitting, and reading extensively about knitting, I discovered that one very significant factor in whether I would love a sweater or not want to wear it much was the structure of the sleeves. So here is part I of the Official Go Knit In Your Hat Sleeve Tutorial. (More parts will come as I write them. Be patient; I scanned and loaded a buttload of photos for your edification.)
Let's start with drop sleeves. Here's a schematic of a sweater (I know you can read schematics, because we talked about them eons ago, right?):
This is the most basic sweater one could possibly design or make: it's a bunch of rectangles. Rectangle for the front, rectangle for the back, even the sleeves are rectangles. It's easy to make because you don't have to do any increasing or decreasing; you just knit rectangles. It's easy to design because you don't have to plan any increasing or decreasing, and if you are going to use some kind of pattern stitch, or stranded design, or cables (and I hope to God you are, or it's gonna be one boring damn sweater), you don't have to worry about increases or decreases or pesky sleeve openings cutting into the pattern. Note that I've marked the place where the sleeves are sewn to the body with blue lines and labeled them "seam lines."
This is a slight variation on the Rectangle sweater: it's the Modified Rectangle model. Still uses rectangles for front and back, but the sleeves are now trapezoids (they start narrower and increase as they go up).
What is most important about either of these sweaters for our purposes is the place where the sleeves meet the front and back. In both versions, there is no shaping, no cutting in for where the sleeve meets the front and back. You can see the sleeve top is a straight line and it's sewn in a straight line to the straight edge of the front and back.
And that's the problem.
Women's shoulders look like this.
They slope downward and are curved. Their arms continue this sloping line.
When you put a drop shoulder on a woman, you are trying to superimpose a boxy rectangle on a sloping, curvy form.
It doesn't match. And that is why you end up with all kinds of extra fabric pooching out in all the wrong places.
The green line shows where the seam line is, i.e., where the sleeves are sewn to the body of the jacket. The blue line shows about where the model's natural shoulders are. See where that seam line falls? See how it drops off the model's natural shoulder line? That's the Dreaded Drop Shoulder. From a fashion standpoint -- and more important for us, a fit standpoint, the Drop Shoulder is the Seventh Sign of the Apocalypse. It is Evil. It is Unattractive. Very few women look good in a drop shoulder sweater.
You can see why pretty easily: the sweater doesn't follow the natural curve of the woman's shoulder. It sags and there's unnecessary knitted fabric that hits in all the wrong places (some of which is shown in the red circle). Yet for as unattractively as they fit most women (and I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule, which smug commenters will promptly tell me about) drop shoulder sweaters are ubiquitous. You can't open a Dale of Norway pattern book without getting hit over the head with them:
Lovely patterning, no? But it looks sack-like on the (almost certainly very slender) model:
There's the seam line, shown in green. The natural line of the model's body is shown in blue, and the circles show some of the extra fabric that contributes to the burlap sack look. Don't get me wrong: I love Dale of Norway. But for as exquisite as the stranded knitting and colorwork and ethnic designs of traditional Dale sweaters are, many of them, oh so many of them, have those poky, saggy drop shoulders.*
Here's one from Rowan:
The alternative to drop shoulders are set-in sleeves. Set-in sleeves are a little harder to make, and harder to design, but they are infinitely more flattering to wear. If you were dissatisfied with your last sweater project because of the way it fit, and it had drop shoulders, don't give up on making sweaters yet. Try a sweater with set-in sleeves.
Set-in sleeves are sleeves which are "set in" to the body of the sweater. When you are knitting the front and back, to get to the place where you want the armhole to start, and you bind off stitches in each side, like so:
You may bind off a few stitches or a lot, and you will probably continue to do some decreases as you continue the body of the sweater to get rid of that extra fabric that you don't need there. When you knit the sleeves, you will make a similar line of bound-off stitches and possibly decreases, in order to create an edge that mirrors the lines of the front and back. You want the edge of the sleeve to mirror the armhole of the front and back so that you can match those mirror edges and sew a seam.
Now look at some set-in sleeves from Rowan.
The marked-up version:
See how the sweater follows the natural line of the model's shoulders, shown in the top red line. See how the structure of the sweater, marked in the second red line, cuts in for the sleeves, eliminating the extra fabric. And see how much neater, less sloppy, more trim and well-fitting it looks?
Here's a denim jacket:
See the difference? Here's why:
Again, the jacket follows the natural line of the model's shoulders (line on the right) and instead of having extra saggy, baggy fabric, it fits beautifully (look at the red line on the left, where you can see how the sweater nips in for the armhole and sleeve). What a difference.
If you learn nothing else from my blog but the difference between drop shoulders and set-in sleeves, I will be able to sleep well tonight.
*To be fair, in recent years, Dale has made an attempt to show more women's sweaters that have other kinds of sleeves.